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'All Facts Considered' By NPR's Longtime Librarian

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'All Facts Considered' By NPR's Longtime Librarian

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'All Facts Considered' By NPR's Longtime Librarian

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

I'm a dunce. I know a few song lyrics, a few baseball stats, and how to knot a tie. Left to my own devices, I confuse Doric with Corinthian; Monet, Manet, and Matisse; Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal; Socrates and Sophocles; Crete and Sicily; Grover Cleveland and William Howard Taft. Hey, the capital of Missouri -Columbia, right? Or is it Branson?��

But my ignorance is carefully concealed on this program because I can punch four digits on the telephone and hear...

KEE MALESKY: Library, can we help you?

SIMON: That's Kee Malesky, who is the source of all human knowledge. I said that on the air once. That's all I have to know. She's NPR's longest-serving librarian. She was the inspiration for a PBS children's special. She's now written a book that harvests some of the facts that she's plucked so lovingly over the years.

The book is "All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge." Kee Malesky joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

MALESKY: Thank you, Scooter.

SIMON: Now, watermelon - fruit or vegetable?

MALESKY: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: Most of us would think of it as a fruit, but it can also be considered a vegetable because it's in the same family as cucumbers and gourds. And the state legislature of Oklahoma a few years ago decided that it would be their state vegetable.

SIMON: But, I mean, in theory, could California decide to make it a state fruit?

MALESKY: Oh, absolutely.

SIMON: Huh. The rockets' red glare - where'd the red glare come from?

MALESKY: Well, that's Congreve rockets.

SIMON: Yeah?

MALESKY: Which was at that point in time, early 1800s, a new development in weaponry. And to get a better idea of what they are, if you've ever set off a bottle rocket in your backyard on Fourth of July, that's a small version of a Congreve rocket.

SIMON: We really can't stump you with anything, can we?

MALESKY: Well, not if it's in my book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: Then I've already looked it up.

SIMON: I think the question everybody wants to know: what's it like to work with a group of insufferable egos like you do day in and day out?

MALESKY: I can't imagine who you're referring to.

SIMON: I can't either. But, objectively, you know...

MALESKY: Well, I would say, if you're referring to...

SIMON: In the abstract, what's it like to work with...

MALESKY: ...to NPR hosts and reporters, I'm very happy to support them, because for the most part they're very appreciative of our efforts. But I wouldn't want to be your editors.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: What does that mean?

MALESKY: I wouldn't want to have to tell you no.

SIMON: Yeah. I think almost the most astonishing fact - and I hardly consider it inessential - that I encountered in your book is, you know, all of our latte swilling in this day and age to the contrary, Americans are actually drinking less coffee than we did in 1946, right?

MALESKY: According to the USDA, Americans in 2007 consumed about 22.7 gallons, whereas in the 1940s it was more than twice that. And I think, no doubt, the difference is the popularity of carbonated beverages, soft drinks and the like, which were not so available earlier in the 20th century.

SIMON: Yeah. We just had a couple, right?

MALESKY: So everybody drank coffee at every meal.

SIMON: Some of us still do, I'd thank(ph) you to recognize.

One of the last things that our friend the late Dan Schorr wrote for publication was a blurb for your book. He said Kee Malesky enshrines the humble fact in a way that's both instructive and enchanting. Any memories?

MALESKY: Well, I remember the first time Dan came into the library on what was pretty much my very first day in the news library in 1990. And he expected to see the library manager, Rob. Rob wasn't there. And he stopped short. I said, hello, can I help you? He said, no, that's OK. And he turned around and walked out. But...

SIMON: I meant any warm memories, Kee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: It gets better.

SIMON: Yeah.

MALESKY: Once he realized that I was going to be the only librarian available on Fridays, and he needed information on Fridays, he did go ahead and ask me some questions. And I managed to answer them adequately. And so we did become very close friends. And I'm really very proud that he read my book, that there's a fact about him in my book and that we wrote me that blurb.

SIMON: Is that the Watergate fact?

MALESKY: That's right. He asked me to find the phrase "follow the money" in the book "All the President's Men" by Woodward and Bernstein. And because it's Dan Schorr and my policy is to go to any lengths to get Dan Schorr the information needed, I went through the book page by page. And that phrase does not appear there.

And then in talking to Bob Woodward and to the screenwriter William Goldman, Dan discovered that it's actually kind of made up for the movie and it did not occur in real life. So I called that fact: he should have said it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: But people say it all the time to each other.

MALESKY: Well, now they do, certainly. And that's why Dan was asking. He wanted to use it in another context.

SIMON: Did Van Gogh cut off his ear?

MALESKY: In the United States it's OK to say Van Gogh.

SIMON: OK.

MALESKY: It's what we're most used to, but it's nice of you to try.

SIMON: I wouldn't do it for anyone other than you. I assure you.

MALESKY: There are a couple of German scholars who recently looked at the police reports and such and think that perhaps his good friend the painter Paul Gauguin cut off his ear on the street in Arles when they were arguing over something. But apparently...

SIMON: Excuse me. If he cut off his ear, he can't be that good a friend.

MALESKY: Well, they were having a bad day.

SIMON: Yeah.

MALESKY: But they were friends over many, many years. But the curator of the Van Gogh Museum is skeptical. So I put it in there as just a maybe.

SIMON: I think I know this, but let me double check it with you. Who was the first non-Native American to set foot in Chicago?

MALESKY: Well, it was actually an African man, a man from Haiti, whose name was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. And he constructed the first dwelling at a trading post at what is now known as Chicago.

SIMON: Yeah, and they named a high school after him, although we say it du Sable.

MALESKY: Of course. In New York we would say du Sable - du Sable.

SIMON: I will say, while we're recording this interview, that what we treasure about you here - you just don't wait for the phone to ring. You find out stuff and bring it to our attention.

I mean, you've, you know, so many of the stories that people wind up hearing that they actually like begin with you uncovering something.

MALESKY: Well, and any of the librarians, we read all the time. We're constantly looking at news sources, at websites, at all kinds of things that are happening in the world. And a particular host or reporter pops into mind, I say, oh, so and so needs to know about this. So we're all very proactive. It's really a part of the proper job of a librarian.

SIMON: So sometimes on those very rare occasions when we call up the extension at a library and there's no answer, it goes into voicemail, am I correct in assuming that there are half a dozen of you crouching below the table saying...

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: Oh no, it's Scott. You pick it up. No, we're happy to answer any call.

SIMON: You have a wonderful last section where you talk about great endings to books, including, I think, just about my favorite, which is Frank McCourt's ending to - I like "The Great Gatsby" too.

MALESKY: That is the line that makes it the great American novel, I think.

SIMON: Yeah.

MALESKY: It's the closing line.

SIMON: Borne carelessly against the past.

MALESKY: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

SIMON: Yeah, that's great.

MALESKY: Yeah.

SIMON: And then you have Frank McCourt's ending from "Angela's Ashes."

MALESKY: I stand on the deck with a wireless officer, looking at the lights of America twinkling. He says, My god, that was a lovely night, Frank. Isn't this a great country altogether? 'Tis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: All of these closing lines, which I thought was very clever of me to use that as the final fact in the book, all of them are ones that I'm so attached to I can't even read them without choking up. Some of them I absolutely can't even read to myself without choking up.

SIMON: Well, NPR's reference librarian, Kee Malesky. Her new book, "All Facts Considered: The Essential Library of Inessential Knowledge."

Kee, it's a great book. I'll say it. 'Tis.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MALESKY: Thank you so much.

SIMON: And you can find out how many insects are on Earth and their names, and read more of Kee's favorite facts on our website, npr.org.

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